A Remote Arizona Church Offers Followers Peyote-Induced Psychedelic Trips

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"The initial effects, if a sufficient dose is eaten, are -- probably within 30 minutes to an hour -- some feelings of physiological distress, nausea, discomfort, fullness in the stomach, sweating, chills," he testified.

"These symptoms may last for one to two hours, and then usually subside and are replaced by . . . calmness, relaxation -- during which the psychological changes occur, he said. "The total length of effects of eating a sufficient dose of peyote are . . . in the range of 10 to 12 hours."

The dosage necessary to experience hallucinations is hard to predict, Weil continued. But during his testimony, he explained that most people who take the drug need to ingest more than six cactus buttons to have a measurable effect. (The 21 grams used for Peyote Way's spirit walks is much more than that.)

Weil, who admitted taking peyote on at least three occasions, testified that the drug isn't harmful, particularly in the right setting.

"I think these are safe drugs if they're used in the appropriate context," Weil told the court, "much safer than many drugs we routinely administer to people for medical purposes."

Inside a small greenhouse at Peyote Way, thousands of button-size cacti cover the room's dirt floor like a rumpled green carpet. Kent estimates that there are 8,000 to 10,000 individual plants ranging in age from 10 to 100 years old. It's hard to imagine that it's a felony, technically, to cultivate, distribute, or consume each of the fragile-looking plants.

Because the DEA classifies peyote as a schedule I drug (along with LSD, heroin, Ecstasy, and marijuana) the penalty for "unlawful distribution, possession, or intent to distribute" any amount could result in up to a $10 million fine and 30 years in prison, although prosecutions rarely happen. Special Agent Ramona Sanchez with the Phoenix division of the DEA, says she's not aware of any recent peyote cases in Arizona.

Congress' 1978 passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act doesn't protect Peyote Way from federal law enforcement because it's not affiliated with the Native American Church. This law has been challenged several times (including by Peyote Way) based on the free-exercise clause in the First Amendment, but the courts have struck down each attempt.

Peyote Way is able to avoid prosecution mainly because Arizona is one of six states where the use of peyote for bona fide religious purposes has been legalized without deference to race -- meaning individuals don't need to be part of the Native American Church to legally take the drug for religious reasons.

According to the nonprofit organization Erowid, which specializes in documenting the use and effects of psychoactive plants and chemicals, only Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico, Nevada, Minnesota, and Colorado have such exceptions.

Arizona's revised statute, Title 13-3402, states: "A person who knowingly possesses, sells, transfers, or offers to sell or transfer peyote is guilty of a class-six felony. In a prosecution for violation of this section, it is a defense that the peyote is being used or is intended for use: In connection with the bona fide practice of a religious belief, as an integral part of a religious exercise, and in a manner not dangerous to public health, safety, or morals."

Still, there's much controversy surrounding the legality of taking peyote, and if federal authorities wanted to prosecute Peyote Way for its use, cultivation, and distribution of the plant, they probably could make a case. Peyote Way Church technically is in violation of federal law, as neither Kent nor Zapf is Native American. Special Agent Sanchez, however, deferred to local and state authorities when asked about Peyote Way, suggesting that the DEA has taken a hands-off approach regarding peyote use, in the same way the Obama Administration recently has backed off going after medical-marijuana distribution in states including Arizona.

Any possibility of prosecution never deterred Kent and Zapf from pursuing their church's mission or deterred people from making the trek out into the desert wilderness of Aravaipa to experience the effects of the hallucinogen.

Kent makes clear that the church doesn't sell peyote, and he says the plants it grows on the property never leave it.

"As far as the state of Arizona is concerned, they understand that in order for us to practice our religion, we need our sacrament," he says. "The feds aren't going to sell it to us so we grow our own."

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Eric Tsetsi
Contact: Eric Tsetsi